Close Encounters

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This sign can make you feel lost in time. Assuming you read it, which you probably don’t. I’m not sure who the sign is intended for, actually. If a 20-year-old attempts to buy an adult product in a convenience store and is unaware of the law, he’s probably not all that literate in the first place.

The rest of us ignore this, regardless of what we’re buying, unless we glance at it in a stray moment and do some unfortunate calculations.

Dates of birth are important for all sorts of reasons. The arbitrary nature is accepted, because we have to have rules, right? If you’re 17 years and 364 days old on Election Day, tough luck. And it’s all about luck. No one posits automatic maturity to a number; it’s a rough standard. Again, arbitrary. And again, accepted.

The rest is made-up shit.

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I read an article today noting that it’s possible that no member of Generation X will serve as U.S. president. I hate-read most of this, because ugh we already KNOW this. At least I did, because I’m a weirdo when it comes to presidential history.

And because I’ve been at war with generational theory for a long time. Who exactly is a Gen X-er?

Anybody you want! Really! I can be one!

It’s codified bullshit. It’s fun to think about, and there’s undeniable logic to it, although that’s mostly connected back to those arbitrary rules—when we become legal adults can shape an awful lot of our experiences to come. Just ask someone born in 1927, and their friend born two years later—one was on the front lines in Europe in 1945, and the other was still in high school.

Differences expand as the age gap widens, which is why age-based cohort assignments are problematic and meaningless anyway, since they take arbitrariness to new heights.

Even if you subscribe to the cyclical theory of history, and worship at the altar of Strauss and Howe, the whole thing begins to break down when we lean towards generalizations, which we always will. Strauss and Howe identified discrete generations beginning in the 15th century (the Arthurian Generation). The generations vary in length, based on historical circumstances, but they’re roughly 20 years apart.

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If you’re a skeptic about this use of dates and history, if it sounds a little like astrology, join the club. The ideas of S&H have been widely dismissed by others studying history and demographics as pseudoscience, although they’ve entered mainstream thought and most of us toss around generational markers casually, as if fact.

So, facts—who is a member of Gen X? According to S&H, people born between 1961 and 1981.

Does this seem wrong to you? That’s because convention has established slightly different birth years. Whereas S&H delineate Baby Boomers, for example, as a group born between 1943 and 1960, most of us seem to think of it as a post-war boom, from 1946 until 1964. So who’s right?

Again, you are. Doesn’t matter. It’s all fiction.

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This is a rabbit hole for me, and I’ll step around it for the time being. I’m nowhere near an expert; my feelings are visceral, but my knowledge is essentially Wikipedian.

But presidents are fun, and since we’re heading into what seems to be a crucial presidential election year, let’s have fun.

The last year in which a future president was born was 1961 (Obama). Strauss & Howe would put him as Gen-X, if on the cusp; others place him firmly in the late-Boomer group. Wherever he is, that’s where I am (born in 1958).

So, yeah. People born after 1961 can (obviously) be in their late 50s, drifting down to late 30s (born by the end of 1982). That is, the oldest of the group probably remember, if a little vaguely, the 1968 assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. They were entering high school as the Vietnam War was ending.

The youngest members might recall the Challenger tragedy, but the most likely historical event on their childhood radar was the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the first Gulf War.

I apologize for the Mr. Obvious-ness of this. If you’re interested, you’ve probably already thought about it.

But presidents!

I got curious, just thinking about Obama and having someone of my age become president. He’s the only one so far, and there’s no one else on the horizon. If you use the conventional markers, both Biden and Sanders are not even Baby Boomers (they’re late members of the Silent Generation; more on this in a bit). Warren is a late-ish boomer, Mayor Pete is a Millennial, and the rest are mostly Gen X-ers and unlikely anyway.

So I got curious about this, and one bored night I did some research. I (arbitrarily, duh) defined an age cohort as a much smaller group for this purpose. If a president was born within five years of you, either direction, then that’s your generational president. How often does this happen?

Always.

I mean, almost always. If we begin in 1727 (five years before the birth of George Washington) and continue through today, we only get two groups (remember, five years in either direction) with no presidential representatives—those born from 1896 to 1902, and then from 1930 to 1940 (i.e., from Eisenhower [1890] until LBJ [1908], and then from Bush/Carter [1924] to Clinton/Bush/Trump [1946]).

Looking at those age groups, what else can we see? They were both born in economically depressed times, especially the last group, although we’ve had a bunch of those (the deepest recession/depression in the 19th century, between 1873 and 1879, produced Coolidge and Hoover). Still, these usually coincide with decreased birth rates, so a case could be made.

So, again, as much as I want to roll my eyes at generational theory (or at least popular conceptions of generational theory as established fact), for convenience—people who are 79 to 89 have never had a president close to their age, and while the odds aren’t bad for redress (Biden still leading Democrats in polling) they still have to be considered historically unlikely, as we’ve never elected a president over the age of 70.

Then again, we’ve had all sorts of norms crumble lately.

So, what about those Gen X-ers?

It’s hard to say. We’ve already skipped one group in the past 120 years (the Silent Generation, roughly between the mid-1920s and mid-40s), due to the numbers of GI Generation presidents (seven) and now Boomers (five). If our preference remains leaning toward senior citizens, it’s possible that both groups will get a president. Possible.

And meaningless, of course. If I wasn’t clear.

Chuck SigarsComment